Hong Kong reveals new security law with harsher penalties

The law steps up an ongoing crackdown on political opposition and public dissent, targets 'foreign forces.'
By Lee Heung Yeung for RFA Cantonese
2024.03.08
Hong Kong reveals new security law with harsher penalties Legislative Council (LegCo) President Andrew Leung speaks to the media after a Legislative Council meeting to scrutinize the bill on Article 23 legislation in Hong Kong on March 8, 2024.
Li Zhihua/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Hong Kong's government on Friday tabled a draft national security bill that proposes life sentences for anyone who "endangers national security," with sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment for "illegally disclosing state secrets."

The Safeguarding National Security bill, commonly known as Article 23, is highly likely to pass in the city's Legislative Council within a few weeks due to the lack of opposition lawmakers.  It comes amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the wake of the 2019 pro-democracy protests that has used both a 2020 National Security Law and colonial-era sedition laws to prosecute and jail people for protest and political opposition in unprecedented numbers.

The government says the legislation will plug "loopholes" left by the 2020 National Security Law and claims it is needed to deal with clandestine activity by "foreign forces" in the city, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party blames for the 2019 mass protest movement that was sparked by plans to allow extradition to mainland China.

The law proposes sentences of up to life imprisonment for "treason," "insurrection," "sabotage" and "mutiny," 20 years for espionage and 10 years for crimes linked to "state secrets" and "sedition."

It also allows the authorities to revoke the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports of anyone who flees overseas, and to target overseas activists with financial sanctions.

The concept of "collusion with foreign forces " runs throughout the draft bill, and sentences are harsher where "foreign forces" are deemed to be involved.

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Hong Kong activist Alexandra Wong, also known as Grandma Wong, waves Britain's Union Jack as she protests the national security law in front of the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong on March 8, 2024. (Holmes Chan/AFP)

Currently, pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai is on trial for a similar offense under the 2020 National Security Law -- the case against him relies heavily on opinion articles published in Lai's now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper.

The draft law allows police to extend the detention of arrested persons from 48 to 14 days in national security cases, and also creates a new offense: "unlawfully using a computer or electronic system to endanger national security," which is punishable by 20 years in prison.

Security chief Chris Tang said there was a "genuine and urgent need" for the new law, citing waves of mass popular resistance and campaigns for full democracy in recent years, and particularly the protests of 2019.

"Hong Kong has undergone serious threats to national security, especially the color revolution and black-clad violence in 2019, which was an unbearably painful experience," said Tang, who has previously warned that art "can be a pretext for subversion."

Elastic definition of 'national security'

Hong Kong officials and national security judges, who operate without a jury, have so far employed a highly elastic definition of what constitutes a threat to “national security.”

For example, dozens of former opposition politicians and activists are currently standing trial for “subversion” for organizing a democratic primary election.

But rights experts and activists including the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Rights Defenders have warned during the consultation process that the law will criminalize actions like peaceful protest or political opposition that should be protected under international law.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns on Thursday that the law could be used to curb public speech or the media.

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Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang speaks during a Legislative Council meeting to scrutinize the bill on Article 23 legislation in Hong Kong on March 8, 2024. (Li Zhihua/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

Justice Secretary Paul Lam appeared to confirm that it could, saying that the law would be used to target those who "incite hatred," citing the example of "insulting words" used about visitors from mainland China in recent years.

Amnesty International in January described the Article 23 legislation as "a dangerous moment" for human rights in Hong Kong, warning that Hong Kong authorities would likely "push through" this legislation with minimal meaningful consultation, and without ensuring its compliance with international law.

“The government has made clear it intends to double down on repression of civic freedoms under Article 23 by introducing steeper penalties and expanding cases in which the legitimate exercise of rights would be criminalized in the name of national security," the group's China director Sarah Brooks said in a statement on Jan. 30.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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